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  1. Life & Culture

Abortion stories from years ago. It was always complicated.

For many who came of age before Roe v. Wade, their views on abortion are informed by life experience and tinged with ambiguity.
An anti-scaling fence surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, May 5, 2022, during a demonstration in Washington over a draft opinion that suggests the court could be poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. The news prompted local seniors who came of age before Roe to reflect on their views of the law and its implications.
An anti-scaling fence surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, May 5, 2022, during a demonstration in Washington over a draft opinion that suggests the court could be poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. The news prompted local seniors who came of age before Roe to reflect on their views of the law and its implications. [ MARIAM ZUHAIB | AP ]
Published May 7|Updated May 7

At Gulfport Senior Center’s painting class on Tuesday, everyone had an abortion story.

“It’s funny, I thought Roe. v. Wade passed before the 1970s,” said Pat Van Leuran, 78.

“That’s just because we all knew people who were getting them before then,” 70-year-old Corey Kallen said with a chuckle. “It just wasn’t legal.”

Kallen’s childhood friend in Mississippi got pregnant on prom night, her first time having sex. She traveled to Washington, D.C., in search of someone who would perform the procedure, with no luck. At 19, Kallen said, her friend’s parents sent her to a home for unwed mothers.

Bonnie Walker, 79, recalled an acquaintance, a divorced mother of three, who had to find multiple doctors to testify in court that she was “unfit to care for a child” before she could receive an abortion.

Van Leuran is haunted by the quiet girl in her eighth-grade class whose belly slowly began to bulge out of her tiny frame, until one day she disappeared.

“I knew the girl did not have a boyfriend,” she said. “It had to be family. Rape. And everybody prayed for her, like she did wrong. I look back on that and I can’t believe it.”

The future of abortion in the United States will depend on a decision that often is framed in stark terms — life or death, right and wrong, Roe v. Wade. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized the procedure nearly half a century ago will be overturned, or it won’t.

But for older adults who came of age before the 1973 ruling and have seen the law evolve, it’s more complicated.

Many of those interviewed in places where seniors gather said they were morally opposed to abortion, citing religious texts or beliefs about life’s inception.

But they also said they were reluctant to lunge back to the days before Roe, when the country looked much like it will if federal protections for abortion rights disappear — with access depending on where a person lives and what resources they have.

“I just don’t see any good alternative,” said Evon Jones, a retired surgical nurse in Tampa.

Against abortion, with a caveat

A cluster of women exited the tai chi class at St. Petersburg’s Sunshine Senior Center on Wednesday afternoon. It was two days after the leak of a draft opinion suggesting the Supreme Court had voted to strike down Roe v. Wade.

“I’m a Christian, so I’m not for abortion,” said Donna Lee Ford, 79, as others trailed past in the parking lot. She paused.

“But I have had an abortion.”

It was the 1960s. Ford was in her early twenties, living in Cape Cod and deeply in love with her first husband. He didn’t want children, Ford said.

They found a surgeon who would perform the procedure in New York and drove into the city. Money was not an issue and the doctor was good, Ford said, but she called the experience an “unpleasant mess.”

Donna Lee Ford, 79, at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club outside the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
Donna Lee Ford, 79, at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club outside the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]
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She remembers coming up from anesthesia and seeing a small, bloodied cluster of something in a bucket — and the feeling of recognition that, before, it had been inside her.

“When I look back now, I would definitely have not done it,” Ford said. “I wouldn’t have let my negative husband run my life. I wish I’d been a stronger woman and told him, ‘If you don’t want it, get lost.’”

She told no one in her family about the abortion. At a dinner with her father, she stuffed her bra with tissues to conceal her breasts, which were still lactating.

“I would never be pro-abortion,” Ford said. She hesitated again. “But I’m not anti-abortion either. There are some circumstances where it’s necessary. But it should have deep meaning — I don’t like that I let my husband pressure me. I could have raised that baby.”

‘It wasn’t an easy decision’

Around the same time, across Manhattan at Hunter College’s nursing school, Evon Jones, the retired Tampa nurse, was meeting others who were less lucky than Ford.

They arrived needing rescue from shadowy back doors and botched procedures. They arrived while experiencing poverty.

“You saw the irreparable damage that was done to the womb, or the sepsis that occurred because of the infections,” said Jones, now 72. “You saw them die.”

Jones, who grew up in Jamaica, is a person of deep faith, and believes abortion is against God’s will. But just before she entered school, a family member sought out an abortion. She’d gotten pregnant just months after giving birth to her first child.

Evon Jones at the Progress Village Senior Dining & Activity Center on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. She was celebrating her 72nd birthday that week.
Evon Jones at the Progress Village Senior Dining & Activity Center on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. She was celebrating her 72nd birthday that week. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]

“She cried over it. It was not what she wanted. But said she couldn’t not do it,’” Jones recalled. “It made me realize that it’s not a cut-and-dry decision. There’s reasons, and it is multifaceted.”

She went on: “The Bible says thou shalt not kill. But a woman may truly have to abort. If she cries out to God and asks for forgiveness, he will forgive her, I truly believe that. That’s between her and her God.”

New York legalized abortion in 1971. Jones graduated the following year, and the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade shortly after. Procedures became safer, and Jones went on to work in an abortion unit at a city hospital.

“I saw how women would cry,” she said. “Whatever their reason was, it wasn’t an easy decision.”

‘I’m glad I did it’

Back at the Gulfport Senior Center, the women finished their watercolors.

“I was always glad I had sons,” Bonnie Walker said.

“But if your son had gotten a girl pregnant,” Pat Van Leuran asked,” what would have happened?”

“Well,” Walker said, pausing, “he wouldn’t have gone to law school.”

“It feels like we’re going backwards,” said Corey Kallen, whose childhood friend had gotten pregnant on prom night. “And us baby boomers, we fought for these things.”

Toward the back of the class, a woman in an aquamarine shirt spoke up. She’d been silent as the other ladies reminisced.

“In the 1960s, I got pregnant,” Marsha Adams, 93, said. “I already had four children. I was married. I knew that if we had another we would have really struggled, and it would be bad for them.”

Marsha Adams, 93, at the Gulfport Senior Center on May 3, 2022, following a painting class.
Marsha Adams, 93, at the Gulfport Senior Center on May 3, 2022, following a painting class. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]

Adams traveled alone to Puerto Rico, where a doctor who would perform the procedure illegally was waiting for her. Her husband stayed back with the kids.

It was supposed to cost $150, Adams said. But upon her arrival, the doctor demanded much more, and refused to do the abortion without payment.

Isolated and 2,000 miles from her home in Michigan, Adams wrote the check.

“I still think about what that child would have been like, from time to time,” she said, a small smile on her face. “But I’m glad I did it. Even with the extra money.”

Adams looked around the room as several other women wiped their eyes.

“I’ve never told that to a group of people before,” she said.

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